The Book of Longings: A Novel (4 page)

BOOK: The Book of Longings: A Novel
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While it’s true I thought myself skilled at reading the language of the face, I didn’t know whether I really saw all of these things or I
wanted
to see them. The moment stretched beyond propriety. He smiled slightly, a faint lifting of his lips, then turned back to the woman I thought to be his sister.

“Ana!” I heard Mother say, her eyes trailing from me to the peasants. “Your father has summoned you.”

“What does he want of me?” I asked. But already it was breaking over me—the truth of why we were here, the diminutive man in purple, the business matter.

“Your Father wishes to present you to Nathaniel ben Hananiah,” Mother was saying, “who wishes to see you more closely.”

I looked at the man and felt something tear beneath the flat bone in my chest.

They mean to betroth me.

Panic started again, this time like a wave in my belly. My hands began to tremble, then my jaw. I whirled toward her. “You cannot betroth me,” I cried. “I haven’t yet come of age!”

She took my arm and whisked me farther away so Nathaniel ben Hananiah could not hear my objections or see the horror on my face. “You can stop perpetuating your lie. Shipra found your bleeding rags. Did you think you could keep it from me? I am not witless. I am only angered that you’ve carried out such a contemptible deceit.”

I wanted to scream at her, to hurl words like stones:
Where do you think I learned such deceit? From you, Mother, who hides chasteberries and wild rue in the storage room
.

I scrutinized the man they’d chosen for me. His beard more gray than black. Curved ruts beneath his eyes. A weariness about his countenance, a kind of bitterness. They meant to give me to
him
.
God slay me.
I would be expected to obey his entreaties, oversee his household, suffer his stubby body upon mine, and bear his children, all the while stripped of my pens and scrolls. The thought sent a spasm of rage through me so fierce I clutched my waist to keep from clawing at her.

“He is old!” I finally managed to say, offering the most feeble recrimination of all.

“He’s a widower, yes, with two daughters. He—”

“He wants a son,” I said, finishing her sentence.

Standing in the middle of the market, I paid no heed to the people who stepped around us, to Father’s soldier waving them along, to the utter spectacle we were. “You could’ve told me what awaited me here!” I cried.

“And did you not betray
me
? An eye for an eye—that would be reason
enough to have kept this meeting from you.” She smoothed the front of her coat and glanced nervously toward Father. “We didn’t tell you because we had no wish to endure your fit of protest. It’s bad enough that you raise a dispute now in public.”

She sweetened her tongue, eager to bring an end to my revolt. “Gather yourself. Nathaniel is waiting. Do your duty; much is at stake.”

I glimpsed the sour-looking little man observing us from a distance and jutted out my chin in the defiant way I’d seen Yaltha do when Father forbade her some small freedom. “I will not be inspected for blemishes like a Passover lamb.”

Mother sighed. “One cannot expect a man to enter something as binding as a betrothal without judging his bride worthy. This is how it’s done.”

“And what about me? Shouldn’t I be allowed to judge
him
worthy?”

“Oh, Ana,” she said. She gazed at me with the tired old sorrow she felt from enduring such a fractious child. “Few girls find happiness in the beginning, but this is a marriage of honor. You will want for nothing.”

I will want for everything.

She gestured for Shipra, who appeared beside us as if she might be called upon to drag me to my fate. The market closed in around me, the feeling of having nowhere to go, no escape. I was not like Judas, who could just leave. I was Ana—the entire world was a cage.

I squeezed my eyes shut. “Please,” I said. “Do not ask this of me.”

She nudged me forward. The howling in my head returned, but softer, like someone moaning.

I walked toward my father, my feet the carapaces of two turtles, my sandals tolling.

I was a head taller than Nathaniel ben Hananiah, and I could see he was repulsed by the need to look up at me. I rose on my toes even higher.

“Ask her to speak her name so I may hear her voice,” he said to Father, not addressing me.

I did not wait for Father. “Ana, daughter of Matthias.” I half shouted it as if he were old and deaf. Father would be livid, but I would give the man no cause to think me modest or easy to tame.

He glowered at me, and I felt a smidgen of hope that he would find a reason to reject me.

I thought of the prayer inside my bowl, of the girl beneath the cloud. Yaltha’s words:
Take care what you ask, for you shall surely receive it.

God, please. Do not desert me.

The moments sagged beneath a thick, implacable silence. Finally, Nathaniel ben Hananiah looked at my father and nodded his consent.

I stared into the dim, hazed light of the market, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, listening to them speak of the betrothal contract. They debated the months until the marriage ceremony, my father arguing for six, Nathaniel for three. Not until I turned away did grief close over me, a dark forsakenness.

My mother, her triumph secured, turned her attention back to the cloth in the silk stall. I walked toward her, fighting to hold myself erect, but midway there the floor tilted and the world slid sideways. Dizzied, I slowed, my red cloak cascading around me, the hem snatching at the bells on my sandals, my foot torquing. I fell onto my knees.

I tried to stand but slumped back, surprised by a sharp pain in my ankle. “She has taken ill,” someone shouted, and people scattered as if to flee a leper. I remember their shoes like hooves, the little dust storm on the floor. I was the daughter of Matthias, head scribe to Herod Antipas—no one would dare touch me.

When I looked up, I saw the young man from the yarn stall coming toward me. A tuft of red thread dangled from the sleeve of his robe. It drifted to the floor as he bent in front of me. It occurred to me
he’d witnessed everything that had transpired—the argument with my mother, the transaction for my betrothal, my suffering and humiliation. He had
seen
.

He reached out his hand, a laborer’s hand. Thick knuckles, calluses, his palm a terrain of hardships. I paused before taking it, not from aversion, but fascination that he’d offered it. I leaned against him the slightest bit, testing the weight on my foot. When I turned my face to his, I found my eyes almost level with his own. His beard was so close I could, if I were bolder, nod my head and feel it graze my skin, and it surprised me that I wanted to. My heart bounded up, along with an odd smelting in my thighs, as if my legs might give way once again.

He parted his lips as if to speak. I remember the eagerness I felt for his voice, for what he would say to me.

What happened next would plague me through the strange months to come, raining down at odd moments and sometimes waking me in the night, and I would lie there and wonder how it might have been different. He might have led me to the yarn stall, where I would sit on the wood plank among the balls of thread, waiting for the throb in my ankle to subside. My parents would find me there. They would thank the kind man, give him a coin, buy all the yarn the girl had so carefully sorted and wound. My father would say to him:
For your kindness, you must dine with us.

Those things did not happen. Instead, before my rescuer could utter the words on his lips, the soldier who’d traipsed behind us through the streets rushed at us, shoving the man violently from behind and catching my fall as I lost my balance. I watched him go down, unable to look away as his forehead struck the hard tile.

I heard the girl call out his name, “Jesus,” as she ran to him, and I must have tried to go to him, too, for I felt the soldier restraining me.

The man got to his feet, the girl pulling his arm. She seemed
terrified, frantic for them to escape before the soldier assailed him further, before the crowd was riled against them, but he took his time and I remember thinking what dignity he had, what calm. He lifted his fingers to a vicious red welt above his right brow, then straightened his cloak and walked away as prudence dictated, but not without looking back at me—a kind, burning look.

My whole being ached to call out to him, to ensure he was not severely harmed, tell him I was sorry, offer him the bracelet from my arm, offer him all the bracelets in my jewel box. But I said nothing, and he and the girl disappeared behind the wall of spectators, leaving their humble lumps of yarn behind.

My father and Nathaniel ben Hananiah arrived shouting their inane question—not “Are you well?” but “Did the peasant assault you?”

The soldier hurried to justify his actions. “The man rushed at your daughter. I acted to defend her.”

“No!” I exclaimed. “The man came to my aid! My ankle—”

“Find him,” my father shouted, and immediately the brute of a soldier dashed off in the direction the man called Jesus had disappeared.

“No!” I cried again, breaking into a frenzied explanation, but Father did not listen or hear.

“Quiet,” he said, slashing his hand through the air. The pleasure Nathaniel took in witnessing me silenced was not lost on me. His smile was no smile. It was the wriggle of a viper.

I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping God was still able to see me, tiny shrinking sun that I was, and I prayed he would let Jesus find his way to safety.

When I opened my eyes, I looked at the tile where he had fallen. A slender red thread was curled there. I bent and picked it up.

vi.

Yaltha was waiting outside the main door of our house. She reminded me of a gray mouse, alert, sniffing the air, her hands fussing beneath her chin. I hobbled toward her, my lashes dripping kohl paint that splatted on my red coat.

She opened her arms so I could step inside their little circle. “My child, you’re injured.”

Bending, I lowered my head onto the small ledge of her shoulder and stood there, a broken stalk, wishing to tell her of the tragedy that had befallen.
My betrothal. The young man wrongly pursued because of me.
The words rose in me like a yeasted awfulness, then fell away. I doubted she could fix any of it. Where was dear Judas?

I had not spoken a word since the market. Before leaving, Mother had poked her finger into the soft, swollen skin around my ankle. “Are you able to walk?” she’d asked. It had been the first recognition of my injury. I nodded, but the trip home soon became torturous—a stab of pain with each step. I had no choice but to use the remaining soldier’s thick, bushy arm as a crutch.

The red thread I’d scooped from the market floor was tied securely about my wrist, concealed beneath my sleeve. As I clung to Yaltha, I glimpsed a wisp of it peeking out and knew I’d kept it to remind me of the few vivid moments I’d leaned my body against the man with expressive eyes.

“This is not a day for sorrow and consolation,” Father said.

“Ana is to be betrothed,” Mother announced with forced cheer, as if to offset my display of bereavement. “It is an honorable match and we give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.”

Yaltha’s hands stiffened at my back and I thought now of a great bird lifting me with its claws, carrying me over the rooftops of Sepphoris out to the nest of hills with their cave mouths.

Shipra opened the heavy pinewood door into the vestibule and there was Lavi poised inside with a bowl of water and towels for cleansing our hands. Mother pried me from my aunt and thrust me inside. The reception hall floated in afternoon shadows. Steadying myself on one foot, I waited for the day blindness to leave before finally dragging my voice from its hovel.

“I refuse the betrothal,” I said, barely above a whisper. I hadn’t known I would say this—it shocked me, in fact—but I drew a breath and repeated it more forcefully. “I refuse the betrothal.”

Father’s hands, wet and dripping, went still over the ewer.

“Truly, Ana,” Mother said. “Will you now flaunt your disobedience in front of your father, too? You have no choice in this matter.”

Yaltha planted herself before my father. “Matthias, you know as I do that a daughter must give consent.”


You
have no say in the matter either,” Mother said, speaking to Yaltha’s back.

Both Father and Yaltha ignored her. “If it were left up to Ana,” he said, “she would never consent to a marriage with anyone.”

“He’s a widower; he has children already,” I said. “He’s repulsive to me. I would rather be a servant in his house than his wife. Please, Father, I beg you.”

Lavi, who’d been staring grimly into the basin of water, lifted his gaze, and I saw that his eyes swam with sorrow. Mother had an ally in Shipra—scheming Shipra—but I had Lavi. Father had bought him a year ago from a Roman legate who was glad to rid himself of a North African boy better suited to housework than military life. Lavi’s name meant lion, but I’d never heard the faintest roar in him, only a gentle need to please me. If I left to marry, he would lose his only friend.

Father assumed the air of a sovereign issuing a decree. “It is my duty to see that you marry well, Ana, and I will perform that duty with your consent or without it. It makes no difference. I would like your
consent—things would go much smoother that way—but if you do not give it, it will not be difficult to convince a rabbi to preside over the betrothal contract without it.”

The finality in his tone and the hard set of his face abolished my last hope. I’d not known Father to be this cruel in the face of my pleas. He strode toward the study where he conducted business, pausing to look back at Mother. “Had you performed your duty better, she would be more compliant.”

I expected her to lash back, to remind him that he was the one who’d given in to my pleas for a tutor, who’d allowed me to make inks and purchase papyrus, who’d led me astray, and any other time she would have, but she restrained herself. Instead she turned her wrath on me.

Wrenching me by the arm, she summoned Shipra to grasp my other one and together they dragged me up the stairs.

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